Much of the mind-blowing science of quantum physics defies common sense, but D-Wave’s quantum computing approach is proven science that stands on the shoulders of vast amounts of quantum research that has been in backroom experimental development for some time. Big technology companies like IBM, Hewlett-Packard, and Microsoft have gradually been applying quantum physics to commercial technologies for some time. In 1993, IBM proved that quantum teleportation can be performed, possibly as a way to transport non-organic matter from place to place.6 This demonstration showed that there are multiple ways that matter can move through the universe, and quantum computing performs this same trick with data.

“With quantum computing you are really talking about taking advantage of the multi-universe hypothesis,” said Stanford’s Garry Nolan.


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Nolan says he’d love to test drive one of D-Wave’s quantum computers using his own research. There may be enough traditional computing power—like that found at TACC—to effectively process equations and perform the complex modeling that will ultimately lead to cancer cures, but there are too many experiments in line.

Currently Nolan has to break his experiments into parts small enough to be processed within the time he’s allowed on existing super computer clusters to which his team is given access. For example, Nolan said, he will take a DNA sequence that’s “30 billion base pairs of nucleotides, a number that’s 3 billion characters long, and break it into little pieces [that are] 150 characters long, and then I’ll reassemble it. And I do this 30 or 40 times a day, over the course of several months.”

Computing Horsepower Versus Cancer

Quantum computers could come to the aid of more than just research. Real-time imaging systems, such as computed tomography (CT) scans and magnetic resonance images, could be vastly improved by the availability of computers that process data much more quickly than traditional computers, said Nolan.

“If you break it down to computing power, a CT scan, for example, is actually a re-imaging approach to making an image clearer. That takes time to compute. What limits resolution in a CT scan is the time it takes to do iteration after iteration and combine that data for the clearest picture,” said Nolan. “In almost every instance when we look at fighting cancer it’s ‘how quickly can we scan through virtual experiments?’ or ‘how quickly can we get a good picture of it?’ and that almost always falls on available computer power.”

Dr. Jason Kapnick, an Assistant Consulting Professor at Duke University and a practicing oncologist in Florida, said real “bed-side” benefits of high-tech cancer research like DNA modeling and protein folding arrive about every 6 months. These forward steps in cancer research are really more often just ways to have better knowledge of current cancer treatment options, he said. But “quantum leaps” in cancer research could take place if scientists had access to computers with spectacular improvements in speed, and this excites Dr. Kapnick.

“Progress in cancer research arrives from the computer, then to the lab, and then to the bedside,” said Kapnick. “Quantum computing speed in the hands of researchers could mean a massive speeding up of the rate in which we can make rational choices, and the cures will follow.”

However, budget constraints will almost certainly create their own obstacles towards the availability and adoption of quantum computing in cancer research. D-Wave, which in October 2012 secured $30 million in new operating equity, declined to provide the cost of a D-Wave One, but reports have the price paid by Lockheed Martin at around $10 million.7

What matters most is that the technology needed to cure cancer sooner rather than later may be on the verge of becoming commonplace in the form of quantum computing, said Kapnick. Using little-understood science to fight still-incurable diseases “may sound a bit like religion,” said Kapnick, “But it’s the best religion we have to proceed, and it accelerates what we have to work with.”


References

1. Hardy, Quentin. A Strange Computer Promises Great Speed. The New York Times. March 21, 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/22/technology/testing-a-new-class-of-speedy-computer.html?hpw&_r=0. Last accessed April 29, 2013.
2. D-Wave Systems (2011, May 25). Press Release: D-Wave Systems sells its first Quantum Computing System to Lockheed Martin Corporation. http://www.dwavesys.com/en/pressreleases.html#lm_2011. Last accessed April 29, 2013.

3. Lockheed Martin Website. Enter the Universe of Quantum Computing – on Your iPad. http://www.lockheedmartin.com/us/news/features/2013/ipad-quantum.html. Last accessed April 29, 2013.
4. Texas Advanced Computing Center Website. http://www.tacc.utexas.edu/about. Last accessed April 29, 2013.   
5. D-Wave Systems Website, Developer Portal. http://www.dwavesys.com/en/dev-tutorial-hardware.html. Last accessed April 29, 2013.

6. IBM Website. Quantum Teleportation. http://researcher.watson.ibm.com/researcher/view_project.php?id=2862. Last accessed April 29, 2013.     

7. D-Wave Systems (2012, October 4). Press Release: D-Wave Systems, Inc., the World’s First Commercial Quantum Computing Company, Secures $30 Million in a New Equity Round From Investors Including Bezos Expeditions and In-Q-Tel. http://www.dwavesys.com/en/pressreleases.html#investment_2012. Last accessed April 29, 2013.